Gilbert and Emma Holmes inducted into The Randolph Society

Gilbert and Emma Holmes

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Gilbert Holmes and Emma Penny Holmes, educators who shaped the lives of countless local children, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.

Gilbert Holmes, the son of a minister who had been born a slave, was born in Du Quoin in 1898. After the deaths of his parents, Gilbert worked as a laborer in an ice factory to help support his grandmother and brother, but by the late 1920s, he had enrolled at Southern Illinois Normal University (now SIUC). Gilbert studied to become a teacher and began his career in Coulterville’s public schools. In 1933, he was hired to teach at the Vernon School in Sparta. Staffed by black teachers and administrators, the school was opened in 1912 as part of an effort by Sparta’s African-American community to foster a positive educational environment for the town’s black children.

The same year that the Vernon School was opened, Emma Ophelia Penny was born in Sparta. The youngest of a large family, Emma was the daughter of a coal miner. She was educated in Sparta, and in 1930 she started studies at Southern Illinois Normal University. Both Gilbert and Emma demonstrated a talent for leadership at the university. Each served as president of the Dunbar Society, an organization founded in 1925 “in order to create a support network and provide entertainment opportunities” for African-American students at the university. Emma, who was a talented singer and musician, was also an active member of the Roland Hayes Club, a choral society for black students.

Gilbert and Emma married in Sparta in 1934. As their family expanded to include three children, Gilbert, John, and Beverly, both Gilbert and Emma also continued to be devoted to education. Emma began teaching at the Vernon School in 1936, alongside Gilbert, who became the school’s principal. They both worked at the school until Sparta closed the building in 1963 in an effort to fully integrate the district. After the school was shuttered, Gilbert chose to take on a new challenge, working as a counselor at SIU, but Emma continued teaching in the Sparta district until her retirement. Over her 30-year career, she taught in several district buildings, including the Vernon School, the Lincoln School, and Sparta Township School.

Gilbert and Emma worked tirelessly to establish and support professional networks that would improve the opportunities for local educators, often breaking barriers in the process. In 1957, Gilbert became the first African-American president of the Randolph County Educational Association. Emma served as president of the Beta Delta chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, a society that promoting the professional growth of women in education. Throughout their lives, Gilbert and Emma especially championed their fellow black educators, keenly aware of the difference that they could make to their communities by challenging students to reach their potential.

Gilbert and Emma’s love for music also formed a central part of their educational lives. Gilbert played the violin and directed church choirs, while Emma gave piano lessons, taught music classes, and directed school choral groups. In 1971, she became a founding committee member of the Sparta Community Chorus.

Both Gilbert and Emma lived long, full lives, and after their deaths, the citizens of Sparta paid tribute to the educators by dedicating the Gilbert Holmes Community Park and establishing the Gilbert and Emma Holmes Scholarship Fund. Sparta is also completing a park on the site of the former Vernon School, which will once again be a place where the musical voices of Sparta’s children, the greatest legacy of the Holmes family, will be heard as they learn, play, and grow.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Gilbert and Emma Holmes.

Charles Cole and Alice Cole inducted into The Randolph Society

Charles Briggs Cole and Alice Emily Cole

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Charles Briggs Cole and Alice Emily Cole, local philanthropists whose gifts helped shape the lives of the citizens of Chester, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.

Charles Briggs Cole was born in Chester in 1845. He was the son and grandson of the founders of the local Cole Mill, which used the excellent agricultural crops produced in Randolph County to make several brands of commercial flour. After earning a degree in manufacturing from Harvard University in 1867, Charles returned to Chester to join the family’s business. Under the direction of Charles and his brothers, the H.C. Cole Milling Company became a dynamic, innovative part of Chester’s growing economy.

The Coles built modern infrastructure and acquired new, state-of-the-art technology to improve the firm, including one of the area’s first electric generators. Charles also became a major figure in the local railroad industry, serving as president and general manager of the Wabash, Chester & Western Railroad, which stretched across Randolph County. As a founding director of state and national milling associations, he provided resources to other members of his trade. His leadership also extended into public service, including a term as a member of the Illinois state legislature and a lengthy tenure on Chester’s school board.

In 1869, Charles married Laura Layman, a graduate of Almira College in Greenville. They had four children before her death in 1878. (Charles remarried in 1882; he and his second wife completed the family with a daughter.) Charles and Laura’s eldest daughter, Alice Emily Cole, was born in Chester in 1872; she would go on to become an important companion to her father in his philanthropic efforts. Like her father, Alice received an excellent education, attending the Lasell Seminary for Young Women in Massachusetts.

Near the end of his life, the love of learning that Charles shared with Alice inspired him to make a generous gift to the people of his hometown. In 1927, he financed the construction of a new, modern public library for the town. The Chester Herald-Tribune lauded the gift, declaring that a “city is fortunate indeed, which numbers among its citizens, a man who has a vision to build for the future that which will not pay dividends in dollars and cents, but in education, culture and progress.” The new library was scheduled to open in March 1928, but Charles died of a heart attack before the planned dedication ceremony. Instead, the first public event held in the new building was his funeral service. The library building celebrates its 90th birthday in 2018.

After her father’s death, Alice continued her father’s legacy of philanthropy, helping to complete the family’s library gift. Five years later, she made a major gift of her own, presenting more than 50 acres of land to the city of Chester. The new Cole Memorial Park was dedicated in 1936, and it has become an important part of the lives of the area’s people in the decades since, providing them with a place to play, exercise, and celebrate. Alice remained invested in the park project throughout her life, even serving on the municipal park board. She died in November 1962.

Decades after Charles Briggs Cole and Alice Emily Cole shared their riches with the citizens of Chester, the people of Randolph County continue to benefit from their generosity. For the Coles, charitable giving was a cornerstone of their family business. A profile of Cole relatives in Alton summed up the family’s philosophy nicely: “privilege carries responsibility, and philanthropy is its own reward.” Charles and Alice lived these ideals by kindly sharing their own prosperity, giving the people of Randolph County the opportunity to enjoy successes of their own.


Click here to read a more detailed biography of Charles Cole and Alice Cole.

James Thompson inducted into The Randolph Society

James and Margaret Thompson

Honoring the celebration of the Illinois Bicentennial, the Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that James Thompson, judge, educator, and pioneering surveyor, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.

James Thompson was born in South Carolina in 1789. He arrived in Randolph County, Illinois, with his brother, Samuel, in 1814. The brothers settled in Kaskaskia, where James worked as a teacher for three years. In 1817, he and his wife, Margaret, settled on a farm in Preston, near the center of the county, where they raised twelve children.

James’s reputation as a reliable, responsible citizen – and as a capable surveyor – quickly led him to a career of public service. In 1820, he was named as a county commissioner, and during his year in that office he enumerated the federal and state censuses for Randolph County. The next year, he began working for the United States Surveying Service, a role he held for more than two decades. He served several terms as a county surveyor; he was also the county’s probate judge from 1831 until 1848, and in 1832, he served as a captain during the Black Hawk War.

Precise, accurate surveying became one of James’s most recognized skills. He surveyed and platted important early county roads, including one linking Kaskaskia and Vandalia, the state’s first and second capitals. He helped establish an official boundary between Randolph and Monroe Counties, and he surveyed and platted numerous local towns, including Chester, Sparta, Steeleville, and Rockwood. One historian noted that “whenever the name of James Thompson is mentioned, the idea of surveying is suggested. His foot has probably made its impress upon every section of land in Randolph County.”

James’s most famous surveying work, however, was done in the summer of 1830. He was hired by the Illinois and Michigan Canal Commission to survey towns at either end of their proposed canal, which was to stretch from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. After completing a plat map of the town of Ottawa, James and his crew traveled to Fort Dearborn on the shores of Lake Michigan. On August 4, 1830, he completed the very first plat map of the city of Chicago. He named several of the new streets of Chicago after counties in Southern Illinois, including Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and Clinton Streets. And, of course, Randolph Street was named for Randolph County, Illinois.

At the time, there were only 32 registered voters living in the area around present-day Chicago. After the plat was completed, James left Chicago, which was still merely “Lake Michigan howling on one side and prairie wolves on the other,” to return to Randolph County. He turned down the canal commission’s compensation offer of several acres of property in the newly-platted town, preferring instead to take $300 for his work.

When James died in 1872, newspapers in Chicago recognized him as one of the city’s founders in their obituaries. Half a century after his burial in the Preston Cemetery, the people of Chicago installed a new monument at his gravesite. The marker was a fitting tribute, honoring the person that the Chicago Tribune once called an “unquestionable and identifiable founder” of the city of Chicago. The city still celebrates the date on James’s completed plat as an important anniversary. The grave marker, however, has since fallen into disrepair, and a restoration project would be an appropriate memorial to a person who helped create and connect Illinois’s communities. But his greatest monuments are undoubtedly the communities themselves. As one Chicago reporter put it, “James Thompson has another monument, a really spectacular one. If you wish to see it, stand anywhere along the main branch of the Chicago River, and look about you.”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of James Thompson.

Elzie Segar inducted into The Randolph Society

Elzie Segar and his children

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Elzie Segar, the pioneering cartoonist who created Popeye, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester in 1894. He was the youngest son of Amzi Segar, a local house painter. His early jobs included work at Chester’s Opera House, where he played drums to accompany silent films, ran the movie projector, and drew cartoon slides to play between reels. Early encouragement from the theater’s owner, Bill Schuchert, helped him complete a correspondence course in cartooning.

Elzie’s earliest professional work came in Chicago, where he worked for two newspapers in the midst of World War I. One of his unusual early assignments involved drawing comic-style highlights of the games during the infamous 1919 World Series. His work gained the attention of King Features Syndicates, a company producing and syndicating comic content to papers all over the country. He and his wife, Myrtle, moved to New York, where he developed his most famous comic strip, Thimble Theatre, for the company. Several of the characters in the strip, including Olive Oyl and Wimpy, were inspired by residents of Chester.

As Elzie’s cartooning career continued to flourish, he and his young family moved to California, settling in Santa Monica. In 1929, an unexpected inspiration took his comic strip to new heights of popularity. While developing a new storyline for Thimble Theatre, he dreamed up a sailor character based on a Chester man, Rocky Feigle. The supporting character, Popeye, soon became one of the most popular parts of the comic strip, and readers clamored for more. Popeye was soon the leading character of the strip, and Olive Oyl was his new sweetheart. The success of Popeye meant increased syndication for Thimble Theatre, and even in the middle of the Depression, Elzie became a wealthy man.

Unfortunately, less than a decade after dreaming up his most famous creation, Elzie died in California after a lengthy illness. He was only 43 years old. Popeye and the rest of the Thimble Theatre gang have lived on through the work of other cartoonists, and new Popeye strips are still being published every Sunday. Popeye and his friends have been featured in numerous television shows, films, games, and marketing campaigns. Memorials to Elzie’s work are found all over the country, but nowhere is he celebrated more than in his native Chester. The town’s annual Popeye Parade is a local fixture, and tourists can now also visit the Popeye & Friends Character Trail, a series of character statues placed near various Chester businesses and landmarks.

It’s particularly appropriate that Elzie’s characters remain his greatest legacy. For Elzie, Popeye and his friends were beloved companions, as real as any of the people in his life. One obituary notes that Elzie “lived with his characters, and talked about them as he would about any near acquaintance. He insisted that he could not manipulate his characters, but ‘just let them do what they wanted to do.'” The life that he breathed into those madcap creations, generated simply by paper, pencil, and the power of the artistic mind, continues to provide joy and laughter to countless people both around the world and in his hometown today.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Elzie Segar.


George Khoury inducted into The Randolph Society

George M. Khoury

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that George Khoury, philanthropist and founder of the George Khoury Association of Baseball Leagues, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.

The son of Lebanese immigrants, George Khoury was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1900. After a childhood spent near the city’s riverfront, George moved as a teenager with his parents and seven siblings to Coulterville, Illinois, where his parents purchased a family farm. He attended school in Coulterville and did apprentice work with a local printer.

After moving back to St. Louis and marrying Dorothy Smith in the early 1920s, George began working with various business enterprises and ventures. With three young sons to support, the Great Depression’s impact on George’s financial life was nearly ruinous, but the printing skills he had learned in Coulterville helped to sustain him and his family. As the Khourys fortunes improved, they looked to share their prosperity with their sons’ friends, starting a small baseball team of local boys. The small baseball team blossomed, and by 1936, George started the Khoury League, a baseball program for the young boys of St. Louis.

With support from the community, and encouraged by the owners of the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns, the Khoury League grew into one of the largest youth baseball programs in the area. George was committed to keeping the program accessible to any boy who wanted to play, regardless of talent level, even waiving entry fees for those who couldn’t afford them. He was focused on giving the youth of St. Louis an outlet to channel their energy in a positive way, learning good sportsmanship, responsibility, and organizational skills. Although the Khoury League emphasized that children of all talent levels could play, the organization’s alumni include several Major League Baseball stars, including Mike Shannon, Earl Weaver, Dal Maxvill, Frank Baumann, and Homer Bush.

The Khoury League became an important community program for the youth that played on the teams as well as the volunteer adults who managed clubs and officiated at games. In the 1950s, the program expanded to include a girls’ softball program and added new sports, like soccer. In 1952, Randolph County’s first Khoury League teams were organized in Sparta, and teams quickly joined throughout the county. Five years later, George was honored during a Khoury League game in his childhood home of Coulterville with a special plaque recognizing his achievements.

Eventually, the Khoury League expanded to include programs in several states and even foreign nations. George was chosen in 1960 by the United States Committee for Baseball in Israel to travel throughout the nation, sharing information with Israelis to help them form their own baseball programs using the Khoury League as a model. George’s work at home and abroad earned him the admiration of many, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wrote, “I understand that nearly a whole generation of boys has grown up in the fine program of your baseball leagues. They have been strengthened in body and spirit and you have the rich satisfaction of knowing that you have contributed much to the fitness of American youth.”

After George’s death, the Khoury League tradition was continued by his sons and numerous other committed men and women, and it remains an important youth sports program in the United States and abroad. In 1967, one St. Louis sportswriter paid tribute to George’s work, noting that the “monument to the man is in the vibrant, living program he founded and headed” – an organization that continues to thrive and to improve the lives of children today.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of George Khoury.

Henry Gerecke inducted into The Randolph Society

Henry F. Gerecke

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that the Reverend Henry F. Gerecke, who devoted his life to ministering to the most vulnerable, marginalized, and culpable members of society, is the final honoree of the 2017 class.

Henry Frederick Gerecke was born in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, in 1893. The grandson of German immigrants, his life was centered from the beginning on the local Lutheran church. In 1913, he enrolled at St. John’s Academy and College in Winfield, Kansas, a Lutheran seminary prep school. After graduation, he moved to St. Louis, where he began seminary studies at Concordia and met his wife, Alma Bender. They married in 1919 and had three sons: Henry, Carlton, and Roy.

Gerecke was ordained in January 1926 and began serving as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, located near St. Louis University. After a decade leading the church, he took over the leadership of City Mission, which was devoted to helping the neediest members of society in the midst of the Great Depression. This new ministry took him to hospitals, jails, and workhouses – anywhere that he felt he could help those who needed it most. Gerecke also widened his ministerial net via his own radio program, Moments of Comfort.

When World War II broke out, Gerecke volunteered for the United States Army’s Chaplain Corps. He was assigned to the Ninety-Eighth General Hospital, an army medical unit that moved throughout Europe during the war. In 1945, the army requested Gerecke’s transfer for a special assignment: he was to serve as the Lutheran chaplain for the Nazi war criminals who were about to be tried at Nuremberg.

Gerecke’s faith, his facility with the German language, and his experience ministering to the incarcerated in St. Louis were all factors in his selection for the post. The assignment was perhaps the most frightening and challenging moment of Gerecke’s life. He had visited concentration camps in Germany, and he understood the atrocities the prisoners had committed. Ministering to them throughout the trials and subsequent executions challenged the limits of Gerecke’s understanding of good and evil, of salvation and forgiveness.

When Gerecke’s military service ended, Randolph County became the beneficiary of his ministry. He and Alma moved to Chester, where he served as the assistant pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church; perhaps even more importantly, he also became the chaplain at the Menard Correctional Center and Chester Mental Health Center. He extended his ministry even further, making regular visits to patients at Chester’s hospital and serving as a chaplain to the VFW and the American Legion.

Gerecke died suddenly of a heart attack in Chester in 1961 at the age of 68. His impact on the prisoners at Menard was so profound that they requested a special visitation so they could pay their respects to their late chaplain. The prisoners even raised the funds to install a lighted cross atop St. John’s School. The cross, recently repaired and rededicated, still shines in Chester today as a reminder of Gerecke’s legacy. Eileen Gordon, the secretary at St. John’s during Gerecke’s tenure there, explained that legacy simply: “When someone writes of Pastor Gerecke, they must write of love, because this, indeed, was the essence of the man.”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Henry Gerecke.

Bill Mullins inducted into The Randolph Society

Bill Mullins (1905-1978)
Bill Mullins (1905-1978)

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that W.E. “Bill” Mullins, founder and president of a local coal mining corporation and pioneer in the field of land reclamation, will be inducted into the 2017 class of honorees.

William Edward Mullins, Jr. was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1905. After his graduation from Westport High School, Bill moved with his parents and two siblings to Lawrence, Kansas, where he attended the University of Kansas. He graduated in 1929 with a master’s degree in civil engineering, and he was quickly recruited by an uncle, T.C. Mullins, to work for a coal company in Indiana.

Bill’s next career move – a job working for a Chicago-based engineering firm – proved to be life-changing. He traveled to Siberia to help develop coal mines with Soviet partners. Bill was shocked by the dangerous mining conditions and the way that the landscape was ravaged by the project. His wife later explained that the experience in Siberia helped Bill develop two important convictions: first, “that he would never put anyone to work in an underground mine,” and second, that “he would never lay waste to the land that gave him its riches.”

On his return to America, Bill worked for a mining company in Henry County, Illinois, where he met his wife, Maria Everett. The two married in 1936 and had a daughter, Mary. The same year, the family moved to Randolph County, where Bill became the founder and president of Southwestern Illinois Coal Corporation. The firm opened two mines in the area: the Streamline mine near Percy and the Captain mine near Cutler. The latter was the largest surface mine east of the Mississippi River.

Bill worked constantly to develop new mining technologies and techniques. The most famous of these innovations was “the Captain,” the enormous electric shovel commissioned for the Captain mine in 1965. At the time of its construction, the shovel was the largest mining shovel in the world – and the largest mobile land machine ever built.

Decades before coal companies were legally required to do so, Bill tirelessly pursued ways to support and reclaim the land that had given so many resources to him. He worked with local university faculty, experimenting with reforestation and agricultural projects on recently-mined ground. Eager to give back to the community that had supported his coal mines, Bill was instrumental in establishing the W.E. Mullins Recreation Area near Percy, which included lakes and ponds, campgrounds, a shooting range, the Southwestern Lakes golf course, and the Scuttle Inn.

After his death in 1978, Bill’s important work in land reclamation was recognized by conservationists. In 1981, he was posthumously given the Eddie Albert Fund Conservation Award; the fund subsequently also created the W.E. Mullins Conservation Award in Bill’s honor. Long after his death, Bill’s “foresight and imagination” have continued to be recognized by those who have hailed him as a “pioneer” and “a truly concerned citizen.”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Bill Mullins.

Nora Lane inducted into The Randolph Society

Nora Lane in a studio portrait
Nora Lane in a studio portrait

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Nora Lane, an actress who made her mark as a leading lady in Hollywood Westerns, will be inducted into the 2017 class of honorees.

Nora Schilling was born in 1905 in the small settlement of Cora, in the southernmost part of Randolph County. Her parents were from German immigrant families who lived and farmed the fertile land around Chester and Wine Hill. The family later moved to Willisville, where her father worked in the coal mines. After her mother’s early death, thirteen-year-old Nora was responsible for keeping house and watching her younger siblings.

As a young woman, Nora moved to St. Louis, where she worked as a model. During a 1925 trip to California to visit friends, she was convinced to do a Hollywood screen test. She began working as an extra in silent films, and she was soon signed to a contract with Paramount Pictures. As her star rose, she adopted a stage name: Nora Lane. Her early pictures were Westerns with popular cowboy star Fred Thomson. One, a biopic of the outlaw Jesse James, brought Nora extremely positive reviews.

Thomson’s sudden death in 1928 put a slight damper on Nora’s rising star, but she continued to work steadily in Westerns as well as in other film genres. She acted in films directed by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Frank Capra, and she starred alongside famous figures like Boris Karloff, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Jimmy Stewart, Mickey Rooney, and even Rin Tin Tin. While some actors struggled with the transition from silent to sound, Nora made the transition to talking pictures easily.

Nora’s career waned at the height of the Great Depression, although she continued to work in supporting roles and short films. A failed marriage to her business manager stalled her film career even further. After their divorce, she found success again as a leading lady in Westerns, especially films in the famous Hopalong Cassidy series.

Nora also found renewed happiness in her personal life, marrying Burdette Henney in 1941 and becoming stepmother to his two children, Tim and Jill. Her final film appearance was in 1944, and she began focusing more on her family life and charitable work. After Burdette’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1948, Nora found that she could not endure and ended her own life. Although her life came to a tragic end, her legacy endures, with more than eighty film credits and a career that spanned a fascinating and tumultuous period in film history. Nora saw a career in entertainment as her destiny; just after signing her first studio contract, she told a reporter, “I didn’t choose pictures for a career — they chose me.”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Nora Lane.

The Hunter Brothers inducted into The Randolph Society

The Hunter Brothers

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that the Hunter Brothers, record-breaking pioneers in the field of aviation, will be inducted into the 2017 class of honorees.

Albert, John, Kenneth, and Walter Hunter were born in southern Illinois and raised in rural Sparta. After the early death of their father, they worked to support their family as coal miners. Soon one of their hobbies – motorcycle riding – led them to the career that would make them famous: aviation.

After purchasing a plane in St. Louis in 1923, the brothers all learned to fly. With several fellow aviators, they formed the “Hunter Flying Circus,” performing death-defying stunts in airshows across the Midwest. They also began contracting with companies as airmail pilots, flying routes that would eventually become the passenger airline routes we use today.

In 1929, John and Kenneth Hunter made their first attempt to break the world record for endurance flight. After eleven consecutive days in the air, they were forced to land in heavy fog. The following summer, all four brothers teamed up to attempt to break the record again. With John and Kenneth flying the “City of Chicago,” and Albert and Walter piloting the supply plane, the Hunter Brothers managed to stay aloft for a record-breaking 553 hours, 41 minutes, and 30 seconds – approximately 23 consecutive days in the air. Their incredible feat brought them global attention and fame, including a movie contract with United Artists.

The brothers made a permanent mark on Randolph County when they inaugurated Hunter Field, an airport just north of Sparta, in May 1931. The airfield is still Randolph County’s only public airport.

Three of the brothers, John, Kenneth, and Walter, pursued professional careers in the field of aviation after their world-record flight. The fourth, Albert, left professional flying behind for farm and construction work. John died while working on an airmail route in Louisiana in 1932; Kenneth perished in a crash in Oklahoma City in 1974. In 1966, Walter retired as the senior jet captain for American Airlines.

In 1980, Sparta celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Hunter Brothers’ amazing endurance flight with a celebration at Hunter Field. The day, which was attended by Walter Hunter, included a recognition of the Hunter family and an airshow. A news report from the day summed up the brothers’ achievements: “They were the astronauts of their day.”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of the Hunter Brothers.

John Willis Menard inducted into The Randolph Society

John Willis Menard at the time of his election to the United States Congress
John Willis Menard at the time of his election to the United States Congress

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce its first honoree: John Willis Menard, a speaker, writer, and public servant who broke new ground for African-American representatives in American government.

John Willis Menard was born in 1838 in Kaskaskia to Creole parents. He may have been related to the Menard family of Kaskaskia, including Pierre Menard, a prominent Kaskaskia resident who served as the first lieutenant-governor of Illinois. John Willis Menard was educated in an abolitionist school in Sparta and later studied at Iberia College in Ohio.

Menard spent much of his career writing and speaking about abolitionist causes. His first prominent speech took place in Springfield in 1859. He wrote for, edited, and established numerous newspapers in Louisiana, Florida, and Washington, D.C. He was also a poet, composing verses in honor of various historical milestones and publishing a book of poems, Lays in Summer Lands, in 1879.

Menard was appointed to a clerkship in the Department of the Interior in 1863, making him the first African-American to serve in an administrative role in the federal government. He was deeply involved in the Lincoln administration’s exploration of possible colonial settlements for freed slaves, and he embarked on an investigative mission to Belize on the government’s behalf in the summer of 1863. He met his wife, Elizabeth, while traveling through Haiti and Jamaica. The Menards had three children: Alice, Willis, and Marie Jeanette.

In 1868, Menard became the first African-American to be elected to the United States Congress after winning a special election in Louisiana’s second congressional district. When the election was contested, he traveled to Washington, where he broke yet another color barrier, becoming the first African-American person to address the chamber of the House of Representatives. Even so, he was denied his seat, largely because of his race.

Menard held numerous other elected and appointed positions in state and federal government. He was the Superintendent of Schools in Duval County, Florida; a member of Florida’s state legislature; and a clerk at the census bureau in Washington, D.C.

Menard died in Washington in 1893 at the age of 55. Today, he is recognized not only for his landmark achievements as a pioneering elected official but also for his literary work.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of John Willis Menard.